Inside Business: Huddersfield wows Milan

Suddenly worsted is chic and the fashion world is heading oop North. Chris Arnot reports

Chris Arnot
Saturday 11 May 1996 23:02
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There is something reassuringly traditional about the boardroom at Huddersfield Fine Worsteds. Seats of well-worn leather are clustered around a vast polished table. Tea is served in elegant bone china. The solid wooden clock on the windowsill stopped at 3.45, but who knows in which year?

On the way in you come face to face with the stern features of Henry Albert Martin, whose bust is mounted on a plinth carrying the dates 1843- 1910. Martin was founder of one of the many mills that dominated this part of west Yorkshire once upon a time. But today his long-deceased company emblem is one of five or six kept like trophies on top of the boardroom cabinet.

Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, a subsidiary of Illingworth Morris, is one of only four survivors in a handsome town that grew prosperous through its tradition of weaving super-fine wool into a smooth, strong cloth with a close-textured surface.

Like many other parts of the British textile industry, the fine worsted mills were badly hit by competition from abroad coupled with a fundamental shift to more casual clothing. This most traditional of boardrooms is a reminder of more dependable days when men who went out for an evening, even to their local pub, dressed up and not down.

Not so long ago the casual trend was beginning to intrude into offices, particularly on Fridays. But fashion is as fickle as ever, and the suit has made a comeback. What is more, the tailored English suit is making big inroads into the top end of a market dominated by Italian designers such as Armani.

Savile Row is undergoing one of its periodic revivals. The new kids on the block, including Ozwald Boateng and Richard James, revel in the challenge of turning traditional Yorkshire cloth into something at the cutting edge of style. It is not entirely a coincidence that turnover at Huddersfield Fine Worsteds has risen by 15 per cent to reach its highest level in real terms for a decade.

Geoffrey Ellam, the managing director, acknowledges the changes that are increasing demand for his 60-metre pieces of cloth, enough for 20 suits. "The English look is good for us, without a doubt," he says. "It's a worldwide trend. The Japanese want English cloth and in Italy the words 'made in England' are becoming as sought after in a label as 'made in Italy' has been over here.

"We had a top Italian designer in here not so long ago, going through our pattern books from the 1930s. I caught him cutting pieces out and slipping them in his pocket."

But Mr Ellam is well aware that a company such as Huddersfield Fine Worsteds cannot rely on the vagaries of fashion. "These days we have to work twice as hard to make half as much," he says, with the benefit of more than 30 years in the business to back his judgement.

"You have to go out ferreting for business. We send our designers out to see our agents abroad at the beginning of each season. That way they learn exactly what the customer wants."

A strong in-house design team, he feels, is some guarantee of quality control: "We're specialising in the highly styled, highly designed end of the market. Our customers want quality at a competitive price. And nobody wants to keep stock any more. We have to have the capacity for a quick turnaround and quick delivery.

"We have had to become more and more efficient by constantly reinvesting in the latest technology. Being part of a big, strong group of companies has been a help in that respect."

Even ultra-traditional fine worsted company Taylor and Lodge, which is nearby, has had to invest heavily in high-speed looms with money supplied by its backers in Jordan. "But we couple new technology with old-fashioned craftsmanship," says Gordon Kaye, the managing director.

"We still use local river water to wash the wool in wooden tubs because that gives it a better 'handle'."

Such quaint techniques fit oddly with the world of high fashion, but Mr Kaye's obsession with quality has attracted the attention of top tailoring designers and recognition in the world's biggest market: Japan.

"What we are beginning to see is English design more and more recognised and in demand," he says. "Ozwald Boateng and Richard James have sparked the imagination of the Japanese, who are falling over themselves to sign licensing agreements. But the swing is by no means complete. The Italians are still dominant in Europe."

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